Archaeologists found this Winchester rife leaning again a tree in Nevada where somebody had left it over a century ago. (Courtesy NPS)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


February 2015

In the News:

Gun Discovered After a Century Under Tree - Sometime over a century ago somebody left his .44-40 Winchester rifle leaning against a juniper tree in the wilderness of Nevada and forgot about it. Last month an archaeologist working in the Great Basin National Park found it still sitting there. The gun's markings indicate it was manufactured in 1882, one of 25,000 of the popular model made. "They just happened to notice the rifle under the tree," said Nichole Andler, Basin National Park's chief of interpretation. "It looked like someone propped it up there, sat down to have their lunch and got up to walk off without it." The gun, which went for between $25 and $50 when new, is rusted and its wood stock has turned gray. It will be preserved in its current condition for visitors to the park to see. Park workers are now combing old newspapers looking for clues to how the gun may have been left where it was.

AFate of Missing Mars Probe Found - The mystery of what happened to the UK's Beagle 2 Mars lander back in 2003 appears to be finally solved. The probe had hitched a lift on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter and dropped onto the planet on December 25th of that year with a batch of experiments to look for Martian life. The probe never phoned home, however. Michael Croon of Trier, of Germany , and a former member of the Mars Express operations team, recently found photos taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that show the Beagle 2 on the surface of the planet near its landing zone. It appears that the probe's solar panels never fully opened after landing. This means the craft never got the power it needed to operate and use its antenna to contact Earth. Croon after viewing thousands of photos had almost given up hope of finding what happened to the lander saying, "Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2."

Does Solar System Have Ten Planets? - Since Pluto got kicked out of the planetary club we gotten used to our solar system only having eight planets. However, researchers at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) and the University of Cambridge have calculated that orbital discrepancies of a number of trans-Neptunian objects (Objects like Pluto referred to as ENTOs) might be explained by the existence of two new planets somewhere beyond the orbit of Neptune. "This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNO and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto," said Carlos de la Fuente Marcos of UCM. The idea may have problems as current theories of the formation of the solar system do not allow for major planets past Neptune. Also the study only looked at the orbits of a 13 ENTOs, a small sample. However, the researchers are currently working to increase the number of ENTO objects they are tracking to give greater proof for their theory.

Why Do Some Horses Were Striped Pajamas? - Why do zebras have stripes? Scientists aren't really sure. Some theories say it's for camouflage, others say it is to confuse disease carrying flies. Now here's a new one: to keep the zebras cool. "We discovered that temperature is an important predictor of how stripy plains zebra are," said Brenda Larison, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of a new study. "Zebra in areas with seasonal cold temperatures are less stripy than those in areas with sustained warm temperatures." The more stripes a zebra has the more convection currents are created near their bodies to keep them cool. Scientists compared the body temperature of zebras and antelopes (who have a solid tan color) living in the same area and found that the striped zebras were almost 6 degrees cooler. The debate on stripes isn't over, however, and scientists point out that a single trait like this may have multiple functions.

Yes, You Can Go Home, If You Are a Loggerhead Turtle - How do loggerhead sea turtles find their way back to the same beach they were born on to spawn again? Scientists thought it had something to do with using the earth's magnetic field, but that method didn't seem precise enough to locate a single beach on a long coastline. A new study suggests that not only do the turtles use earth's magnetic field, but can detect magnetic anomalies at each beach and use these to locate their spawning grounds. Scientist discovered this because as the earth's magnetic field slowly shifts over time, the turtles have also been shifting their spawning ground to match it. The study was published in the January 15 issue of Current Biology.


Science Quote of the Month - "Politics is more difficult than physics" - Albert Einstein.


What's New at the Museum:

The Mysterious Stone Spheres of Costa Rica- Found deep in the jungles of Costa Rica in the 1930's were 300 almost perfectly round stone balls. They varied in size from a few inches in diameter to seven feet across and weighing 16 tons. Scientists aren't sure who made them, how old they are, or what purpose they might have had. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Galaxy Arms - I have often wondered about the shape of a galaxy. Especially the arms. Are they being flung outwards like in a Catherine Wheel, or are they being sucked inwards like in a vortex? Since they say there is a black hole in the centre of every galaxy, could it be possible that the shape is due to the vortex effect? Given that the black hole attracts everything towards the centre?- Victor

Well, let's start with an explanation of what a galaxy is for readers unfamiliar with the concept. A galaxy is a collection of stars that rotate together and are held together by gravity. A galaxy may contain trillions of stars (along with their planets) . While galaxies come in many shapes about 70% in our region seem to form into what appears to be a flattened disc with whirlpool type arms. Our sun is a member of the Milky Way galaxy (which is a spiral) and it located about 1/3 of the way out from the center on one of the arms.

As your question suggests there are several forces acting on a galaxy to give it its shape. Since it is spinning the centrifugal force pushes the stars away from the center (in the same way when you ride a Merry-Go-Round you feel pulled to the outside). However, the gravity of the galaxy works in the opposite direction to pull all the stars back together as a group. It's the balance of these two forces that gives the galaxy it size and stability.

As you point out many galaxies have a massive black hole in the center. While the gravity provided by the black hole may be large (the one at the center of the Milky Way is at least the mass of 40,000 suns) it is actually the total mass of the galaxy that keeps it together.

Strangely enough if you add up all the mass of the black holes in a galaxy, all the stars, planets and free gas (which is pretty much everything we can detect with our instruments), it still isn't enough mass to keep a galaxy together at the rate that it spins. It should actually fly apart. Scientists were extremely puzzled by this when they first made the calculations back in the 1970's. Several theories to explain this have been put forward but the most accepted is Dark Matter.

Dark matter is thought to make up more than 50% of the mass of a galaxy. Scientists don't know what it is, but they do know that they can't see it with their telescopes and it only seems to interact with other forms of matter through gravity. One suggestion is that Dark Matter is composed of an unknown massive sub-atomic particles. Experiments are underway to see if these mysterious particles can be found.

One part of your question that I haven't tackled is "why do the spiral galaxies have arms?" Researchers have been working on this puzzle for years and only recently have computers been powerful enough to do the massive calculations necessary to simulate the life of a galaxy. One study suggests that the arms form in response to clumps in the early galaxy (usually in the form of molecular clouds of hydrogen). The gravity of these "perturbers" can cause matter in the galaxy to form into density waves and these waves appear as arms. Scientists debated for many years whether these arms came and went on a regular basis, but the simulation seems to indicate that once arms form they become self perpetuating even if the original "perturbers" go away.

As stars rotate around the core of the galaxy they will actually move in and out of the arms. It's a bit like a traffic jam caused by someone gapping at an accident. As the cars slow down they cause other cars behind them to slow down too. This creates an area of high car density around the accident, but the cars involved are always different as they move into and out of the jam. It's the same case with the stars. They slow down as they pass throught the arms making the region denser with stars.

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In History:

Bell Rock Light is Lit - On Feburary 1st, in 1811, the Bell Rock Lighthouse went operational for the first time. The dangerous Bell Rock off east coast of Scotland had claimed many ships and many lives during the previous centuries, before Robert Stevenson took on the difficult job of building a 115 foot high lighthouse. The location was considered impossible to build on as the treacherous sandstone reef was, except at low tides, submerged beneath the sea. The lighthouse, which still stands, is considered one of most outstanding engineering achievements of the 19th century.

In the Sky:

Jupiter in Opposition - If you look up into the sky and see the planet Jupiter on the night of February 6th it might not look any different than normal. However, on that night the planet is in opposition. What's that mean? It means that the Earth is passing between the sun and Jupiter which puts Jupiter the opposite to the sun in our sky. Jupiter comes to opposition around every 13 months which is how long it takes the Earth to move once around the sun relative to our solar system's largest planet.


Lake Monster Video Ruled to be True - A commission set up to find "the truth" about a video showing a lake monster in Iceland has ruled that the monster is real. The video, shot by Hj÷rtur E. Kjer˙lf in February 2012, seems to show a long, serpent-like, scaly animal moving along the surface of Lagarfljˇt near Egilssta­ir in east Iceland. The lake has a legend of a monster called Lagarfljˇtsormurinn that goes back to the fourteenth century. The local area council set up a 'truth commission' after the video when viral to decide if it was real. The decision awards $4,000 prize. Some critics suggest, however, that the commission was less concerned with truth and more with tourist income to the area


Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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